The most famed long-distance walk in the Alps circumnavigates the massif of the highest peak in the range. The 15,781-foot mountain is always there, looming above, but the trail itself is constantly changing. It dips down into seven different valleys in three different countries and tops out twice at 8,743 feet atop the Col des Fours, France, and the Fenêtre d’Arpette, Switzerland. It rambles along hair-raising sections of exposed rock as well as wildflower-choked meadows as it takes walkers back around the classic start and end point in Chamonix, France.
But it’s the civilization in between that really makes the trail special—you won’t have to worry about carrying a tent or even food here (which makes the trail an easier possibility for kids and older hikers, too). Stop at villages or huts along the way to gorge yourself with fondue, wine, slices of local cheeses, and homemade bread—then keep walking to work it all off.
You can pitch a tent if you choose, but there are plenty of options for a bed at night, ranging from high-end hotels in a resort town such as Courmayeur, Italy, to a bed in one of the cozy refuges up high. The walk normally takes about ten days, though it’s worth taking it slow and making side trips, including a climb of Mont Blanc itself, most often begun from Saint-Gervais-les-Bains or Chamonix. Or you can be like Gaylord and run the 100-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc race in just over 24 hours.
Asheville, North Carolina-based Jennifer Pharr Davis covers a lot of ground in a hurry. The long-distance hiking champ walked all 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail in 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes, setting a record for the fastest supported time for anyone to ever complete the famed trail. A 2012 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, she also holds speed records on Vermont’s Long Trail and Australia’s Bibbulmun Track. Pharr Davis has thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, the Colorado Trail, Corsica’s GR20, and Scotland’s West Highland Way, among others. She is the author of the hiking memoirs Becoming Odyssa (Beaufort Books, 2011) and Called Again (Beaufort Books, 2013), which tells the story of her record-setting AT hike. She has slowed down just a bit this year to look after her new baby girl.